If you’ve been watching The Last Dance on Netflix lately, you’ll have been reminded of the utter magic of Michael Jordan and of the status of NBA basketball in the USA. That’s a game which has taken a couple of generations to catch the imagination of young New Zealanders. But it’s been doing that lately, thanks partly to the appeal and the achievements of Steven Adams (Valerie’s little brother) who, as if you didn’t already know, is a star for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But, despite the time it’s taken for basketball to become firmly established in New Zealand, there’s been an impressive production of Kiwi b-ball talent well before Steven came on the scene.
And maybe the pick of the crop has been Pero Cameron — the only New Zealander inducted into FIBA’s Hall of Fame (in 2017), a former captain, and now head coach, of the Tall Blacks. Possibly not matching the multi-million dollar incomes of either Steven or Michael. But, nonetheless, a wonderfully talented player even on an international scale — and much too modest to sing his own praises in this chat with Dale.
Kia ora, Pero. I suppose that Pero is a Māori name. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Just as well, because it’s Yugoslav. I was named after a Dally guy up north, Pero Smith. My grandmother, the matriarch in our family, was the one who chose it and she always pronounced it like it was a Māori name. Actually, it’s one of my middle names. Officially, I’m Sean Pero MacPherson Cameron.
My dad, Stewart Cameron, who has a Scottish whakapapa, was brought up at Kohukohu in the Hokianga. That’s where Pero Smith was a bit of a father figure for him. Dad asked him if he could have the name when I was born. That’s the story behind it. It’s not a common name, not in this part of the world.
What can you tell us about your dad?
Well, he was working in Tokoroa in the mill when he met my mum, Mata. And that’s where I was born. Then they went north to Portland where Dad had a job for years at the cement works.
But he was also a rugby league player. Rugby, too. My mum played netball and basketball. Her whakapapa is Ngāpuhi. She was born up in the Poroti, Pipiwai area. That’s where her mum is from. But my mum’s dad was Niuean. So that’s the mix in our family. And there’s five of us kids. I’m the oldest and we grew up in Portland, just a little place south of Whangārei.
Could be a big place one day judging by the plans to establish a major port up there. So, you have Niuean, Māori and Scottish bloodlines. It’s an interesting whakapapa. How did that work out as you were growing up?
All of our family identified as being Māori. I never knew much about my Niuean side. Our Niuean grandfather didn’t know any other Niuean families. And the story goes that, when he came over to New Zealand, he had just one name. That was Moasa. Then they began calling him Jim. So he became known as Jim Moasa.
My nan spoke Māori to us. My mum, my aunties, and everybody was pretty good at understanding Māori, but she was really the only one who spoke Māori to us. When we got older, she had us all on the Poroti marae for tangi and other occasions. So we had a very practical Māori upbringing, but not much in the way of Niuean or Scottish heritage.
Seeing that you’ve been such a big achiever in sport, I wouldn’t be surprised if your four siblings weren’t too bad, either.
We’ve all been leaguies. Rugby league players. In the first game I played — and that would’ve been for the under-fives — we had a win. So that went down well with me. And growing up, I always thought I was going to play for the Kiwis, the New Zealand rugby league side. That was the team I had in mind.
Dad and our uncles and cousins, and brothers and sisters (up until they were about 12) all played rugby league. Not just in Portland, but everywhere. It was such a popular sport.
Basketball was the other way of getting out of the house, out of Portland, so to speak. We chased our sports and had great support from our parents in doing that.
All of my siblings were really good players. My sister Jody made the New Zealand basketball team and went to a couple of Olympics. To the world champs, too. And she’s a national coach now.
My other two sisters, Jeannie and Zeta, are at a high level as well. So is my brother Raymond. They’ve all gone somewhere really good in their sport. It’s just awesome what Mum and Dad did to support us all to head down those pathways. They’re still in Portland — out there, just below the quarry in Whangārei.
I guess you’ve seen a heap of tournaments in your day. But I understand that you’ve now had a look at the junior Māori b-ball tournaments which are relatively new. What vibes did you get from them?
It was my first time there. My family and I have been over here in Australia, on the Gold Coast, for 13 years, but seeing so much talent among these young Māori kids — seeing them making their whānau connections, that was great.
And being there with my daughter Layla was huge. For her, there was that sense of belonging, and being able to link up with her rellies, cousins, her nan, her pāpā, her aunties. And that’s both sides. Jenelle’s parents as well. Seeing a little bit of where we grew up, how we grew up, finding out those stories. It was pretty good.
You’ve actually lived and played in many countries, haven’t you? Can you give us a quick roll-out of some of them?
Well, I’ve played in pretty much all of them except for the African nations. I haven’t been there. But pretty well everywhere else. I’ve lived a good portion of my life in Turkey and Iran. And I spent four years in England, up in Chester. Lived in all sorts of countries and cultures.
Man, it’s been awesome. Made friends for life all around the world. And our kids have had great experiences, too. We’ve had real benefits from all that time overseas.
When you look back, who do you see as being the most influential in your life? No doubt you’ve had some valuable coaches — and a few mentors, too.
Well, when I was growing up, of course, Mum and Dad were everything to me. And, way back, my grandparents were valuable, too. Then, in basketball, when I’d set my sights on getting to the top, I had role models like Byron Vaetoe, Peter Pokai, and Glen Denham.
Then, of my coaches, well, they’ve all helped me, not just as a player but also in dealing with some of the ups and downs, and the struggles in life. I could give you a list of 20. Really. But Tab Baldwin and Paul Henare would definitely be high on that list.
I went to school at Whangārei Boys’, and I was lucky because there was a lot of talent around me, in all the sports. So you couldn’t take it easy. We had good teachers and good coaches, too. And my parents were great at pushing me as well.
I realised that it was worth getting next to people who’ve done it, people who’ve achieved. The idea is that you get next to them and ask for advice. I was lucky with that. For example, Stan Hill was up in Whangārei one year. He’d achieved things that no other New Zealand basketball player had managed. He was tough and uncompromising. And there was plenty to learn from him.
And there were others like Ralph Adams. And Noel Flavell, the father of Jim (Te Ururoa) Flavell who was in parliament for the Māori Party.
If you were to reflect on the high points in your career, I suppose you’d spend at least a few moments mulling over the great performances of the Tall Blacks in the World Cup in 2002. And you’d also be justified in feeling proud of making basketball’s international Hall of Fame. Would those two achievements make the cut for you?
That World Cup in ’02 was a fun ride for our group. We’d been together for a while, so that tournament was a great finale for us. It came at the end of a three or four year build-up for us, but we snuck in under the radar and no one — not even us, to a degree — anticipated how well we’d do.
We were a group of pretty good athletes with Sean Marks, Phil Jones, Dillon Boucher, Edward Book, and Judd Flavell. We knew each other well. We had the encouragement of the group before us — including Glen Denham, Peter Pokai and Ralph Lattimore. And we had a great coaching staff.
So, yes. Making the semifinal in that World Cup was probably my basketball highlight, especially because we were playing for New Zealand — and wearing our black colours has always been very special for me.
And what of your pride as a Māori?
I’ve spent a lot of time away from New Zealand. But, when I’m back, I’m reminded of our proud history as a people, and of the way that New Zealanders are, more and more, acknowledging our heritage, our culture and our language.
And that’s everywhere. As an example, I could be in any town, and I’ll be greeted by someone — could be Pākehā or Chinese or anyone, saying: “Kia ora.” And maybe breaking out the reo Māori to me. That’s awesome. I feel great about that.
One aspect of the sporting world that doesn’t have us feeling great is the drop-off in participation when the kids are leaving school. Naturally, that hasn’t been an issue in such a competitive sporting family as you and Jenelle have been guiding. But so many other teenagers drop out of sport as they head into adulthood. And that’s a pity for various reasons, but particularly because sport is such a unifying force in the community. What can we do about that?
First of all, I think we have to understand that we’re all different. Kids growing up have different strengths and gifts, different weaknesses, different ways of learning, different interests. And the best we can do is help them see what choices there are, and, when they make their choices, help them succeed.
On the Gold Coast, I work for the local Broncos association — and we see the drop-off in our teenage girls. In the early years, we have 30 girls teams playing. But, when they get to under-18s, we have only two teams left. The drop-off is massive. So what’s going on? We don’t have the answer. We’re still trying to work that out. And, meanwhile, we try to help them with their choices.
You’ve indicated that one of your choices, if fate had co-operated, is that you would’ve made it to the top in rugby league rather than basketball. But at least you had one of your mates from the Portland hood make it into the Warriors and into the Kiwis as well. That’s Awen Guttenbeil.
Awen was a year or two younger than me, but he was very good. Me and Jason, one of his brothers, were very good friends. He passed just recently. But we played together in basketball, and also in league, when we were younger.
Had you been a Kiwi, where would we have seen you playing? Maybe as a backrower, or as a prop? Where did you figure your future lay?
I was a halfback or a hooker all the way up until I was older. Also, as a basketballer, I was a point-guard which was small and fast. And then things changed when I was 15 because, at that stage, I wasn’t very fast and I wasn’t very small anymore.
As a basketballer, I was able to carry my skills as a guard over to being a four or five man. That helped me compete. In league, I probably wouldn’t have been able to carry on as a halfback or hooker. Not when I grew up to be 6ft 7 (2 metres) and 108 kilos. They would’ve had me playing prop.
But my favourite players were backs. Clayton Friend, Olsen Filipaina and James Leulua’i. They were ball players. Good with the ball. That’s what I was when I was a young fulla playing league.
I hear that, like your old man, you’ve had a liking for motorbikes. Big trucks, too. And being out on the boat, fishing. Not that you have endless free time entertaining yourself, because you have some serious commitments, especially as the coach of the New Zealand Tall Blacks once we get past Covid-19 and things get back to normal. And you and Jenelle have your three kids to keep an eye on.
Our two boys, Flynn and Tobias, have been in their second year of college in the States. And our youngest, Layla, has three years left at high school including this. I think a little bit of travel could be the go when she finishes. Probably Europe.
And, out in front of me, I’ve got the Tall Blacks — which is a great responsibility. In due course, when basketball gets going again, we’ll see how we go.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity. See here for Pero’s full list of achievements.)
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